Rat-baiting was popular amongst the denizens of the pool halls and squalid taverns of the urban ghetto. The sport, if it can be called such, pitted a dog (usually a terrier or a pit-bull) against a ring full of rats; bets would be laid as to how long it would take the dog to kill all the rats, the average time per each rat death, or whether Dog A could kill 50 rats faster than Dog B.
In the dingy squalor of the Philadelphia Pool Hall, according to Frank Leslie’s of December 22nd, 1866, the sport took a new direction. Plain pine board benches were tiered around a center ring, six foot in diameter. At the center of the ring, full of apologies, stood a man in fighting costume; shorts, with tights underneath for proprieties’ sake, and a loose fighting shirt. He was sorry, the celebrated canine he had ordered from New York City to fight a pit full of rats had not arrived, but to mollify the crowd he gave them two options; either he would substitute another dog against the rats, or the crowd could watch him kill the rats personally. You can guess what the crowd chose.
Some 24 rats, large ones, were brought in; taken from a ship in Philadelphia’s harbor, and dumped into the ring. As the creatures tried in vain to escape the pit, “The Man Rat Killer” as he is called, set upon them. Down on one knee, the man plunged his hand into the squirming mass of rats, seizing one, putting it in his mouth, breaking its neck with a squeak and a crunch, before tossing it aside.
After ten or so of their compatriots had been dispatched in such a sundry manner, the rats figured out what was going on, and swarmed, crawling up the man’s thighs, but he was too quick for them. Rat after rat was crushed between the man’s teeth, the last terrified survivor cowering at the edge of the ring, until it too was killed.
The crowd cheered. The man jumped up, felt his lips which had been bitten once or twice in self defense, pulled some rat hairs from between his teeth, and washed away the taste with a glass of whisky.
I’m not quite sure whether to be disgusted at the cruelty of it, shocked at the fact that he didn’t catch bubonic plague, or to wish that he was still alive today to roam NYC subway stations looking for victims.
Rat Baiting Image from the Police Gazette via Wikipedia.